How to Harness Your Fear to Become a More Confident Street Photographer

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Street photography is one of the most difficult forms of photography out there. Not only do you have to rapidly compose, frame, and approach strangers, but you have to do so with the risk of “injury.” They might injure you verbally (threaten to break your camera, give you a dirty look and call you a creep, or curse at you) or they might injure you physically (try to grab your camera, hit you, shove you, etc).

Of course these fears are legitimate fears. After all, we are in a society in which taking a photograph of a stranger (without their permission) is totally taboo. Most people are suspicious — they wonder what we’re going to do with the photo — whether we are going to upload it to Facebook, Instagram, or any sort of social media (to somehow “steal” their identity or make them look bad).

I personally have a lot of fears when it comes to street photography. I don’t like upsetting people, I don’t like getting my camera broken, and I don’t like confrontation.

But why am I a street photographer then, as these fears “come with the territory”?

I feel that my urge to capture moments of everyday life overwhelms this inner fear that I have. I feel that with street photography, I have a greater purpose. I’m not just trying to make pretty photos to get lots of likes/favorites on social media — I’m trying to say something about society. I’m trying to present my view of the world with others, in the hope that my images will inspire, challenge, or encourage people to appreciate everyday life more.

Are Our Fears Warranted?

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One of the questions I think to myself is this: “What do I really have to be scared of in street photography?”

Honestly, if I think about it rationally, not much. In my 8+ years of shooting street photography, I have gotten into more car accidents than having gotten into physical altercations. The worst that has happened to me was that I had an 60+ Chinese guy karate-chop me in the back of the neck (while he was riding on a bicycle) when I took a photograph of him in Chinatown in Toronto at night (with a flash).

I probably deserved that.

The other case was when I was in Downtown LA, and one of the guys there tried to grab my camera from me. But I ended up talking him down, calming him down, and then walking away and apologizing.

Oh yeah… another case was when I was in Tokyo and I photographed a worker at close-range with a flash (who looked a bit mentally unstable), who ended up running after me, kicking me in the butt (fortunately he hit my camera bag and not my butt), which caused my flash to go flying and break. I apologized and just walked away (being a bit shaken up).

But those were the 3 “freak accidents” I had when it comes to street photography. 99.9% of the situations rarely get that bad, and if they do, they are mostly verbal (people threatening to call the cops on you, yelling at you, or just politely asking you what you are doing).

Harnessing Your Fear in Street Photography

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What I try to do now is harness my fear in street photography. What do I mean by that? I mean the following:

Whenever you see a scene, and you feel scared to take the photo, that is when you need to take the photograph.

I think one problem a lot of photographers have is that they’re not sure what makes an “interesting photo”. They walk the streets all day, unsure of what to photograph.

But I say the following: if you see a person or a scene you want to photograph (but you are scared to photograph), that is an interesting scene.

So in this sense, you can harness your fear to make better photographs. What you are scared of photographing is generally interesting, but you are afraid of the repercussions of what taking the photograph might entail.

Building Courage Through Fear

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I think that it is okay to be afraid when it comes to street photography. Every street photographer I know has at least some fear when it comes to photographing strangers. Whoever tells you that they have absolutely no fear is talking BS.

I think fear is what makes us human, and it is what makes street photography enjoyable. After all, the fear is what makes street photography difficult and challenging. As human beings, we need difficult and challenging activities to help us grow and mature as human beings. If we didn’t have these challenges, life would become boring and dull. This is why I stopped photographing flowers and sunsets — they weren’t challenging enough (and therefore not fun).

I also think that by admitting that street photography is scary, we can take the first step to build up our courage.

I think to have courage in street photography is to admit we are human beings and we have our insecurities and doubts when it comes to shooting. I know that I do. I have missed probably thousands of potentially great street photos because I was scared or I hesitated.

But don’t try to hide the fact you might be afraid.

So, for example, if you’re out on the streets and feeling nervous, perhaps you see a guy you might want to photograph. You can even do the following: approach that guy and say something like: “Excuse me sir, I am a photographer and I love your look and outfit. I think you would look great in a photograph. But the fact is that I am terribly afraid of taking your photograph without your permission, because I don’t want to upset you. Is it okay if I took your photograph?”

I think this approach would work wonders in many ways.

First of all, you identify yourself (as a photographer) and also identify what you find interesting about them (which flatters them and also helps them understand why you want to take their photograph). By also acknowledging that you’re scared to photograph them, you make yourself vulnerable to your subject.

By making yourself vulnerable to your subject, you can instantly and quickly build trust with them. Making yourself vulnerable to someone is to show that you have nothing to hide, and that you are a human being. People can instantly relate with that, and will be much more willing to be photographed.

Think About it from the Other Perspective

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One of the ways to approach street photography and build your confidence is imagine yourself on the other end.

Let’s imagine: you wake up on a nice Saturday morning, go walk your dog, stop by a cafe, and you’re enjoying your cappuccino by the sun. You are wearing your favorite weekend outfit (denim jacket, black-leather pants, Ray-Ban sunglasses) and your dog is also matching your outfit (doggy leather vest with studs and matching Ray-Ban doggy sunglasses).

Suddenly you see a person walk by, aim their camera by their side, and photograph you (while pretending not to photograph you).

How would that make you feel?

Nervous, afraid, suspicious, creeped out, upset, angry?

Yeah, that was a street photographer who just “shot you from the hip.”

This is why I generally don’t advocate shooting from the hip. To be honest, though, when I started I shot a lot from the hip (because I was nervous to photograph strangers without their permission). But over time, I started to realize how creepy and and disingenuous it was. Being caught “shooting from the hip” is a lot worse than being caught photographing someone with your camera to your eye (especially if you smile back).

The Power of a Smile

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I honestly feel that most people don’t mind being photographed. The only issue is that most people are just afraid what is going to happen with the photograph. Most people don’t trust street photographers because they see all this weird stuff in the news about them being pedophiles and creeps and such.

But in reality, we are just trying to capture the beauty of everyday life (as we see it), and trying to share this beauty with the rest of the world (our viewers). We have all the best intentions.

But our subjects often don’t know that.

I have been studying a lot of neuroscience and psychology lately, and they talk a lot about “mirror neurons”, or how we mirror the actions of others. The theory is that we have developed these “mirror neurons” to quickly learn and adapt. If you have ever played with a child before and seen them imitate your facial expressions, you can understand how this might be a good evolutionary strategy.

Therefore if you smile at someone, I can guarantee you about 99% that they will smile back. It is just a neurologically trained response. We mirror the actions and facial gestures of others. We can’t help it.

So as an experiment try the following: whenever you are afraid to photograph someone, just smile at them and see how they respond. If they smile back, then perhaps you can pick up your camera and make a photograph. If you are still afraid, perhaps ask for permission to photograph them.

Shoot Without Regrets

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I think one of the worst things is to live life with regrets. Living a life full of regret is a sure-fire way to be dissatisfied and die unhappy.

I know I’m being a bit dramatic, but realize that every time you don’t take a photograph you want to take, you are creating another drop in your bucket of regret. You don’t want that bucket of regret to get heavy and burden you.

Rather, dump out that bucket of regret.

If you see a potentially good scene to photograph (and you’re scared), just shoot.

Let me repeat that: when you’re scared, shoot.

Shoot from the gut when you’re scared, and don’t over-intellectualize it.

Honestly, if you’re afraid to photograph strangers you’re not going to be able to compose well while shooting (at first). So focus on just taking the shot, and as you build your confidence over time, you can compose better.

Work the Scene

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Now that you’re more confident shooting in the streets, don’t just take one photograph and move on. Rather, work the scene. Take more than one image. I would say for starters, try to take at least 5–10 photographs of a certain scene. If you look at the contact sheets of the masters, you can see sometimes they shot a full roll (36 shots) on a single scene. Alex Webb apparently shot 10+ rolls of Kodachrome for one scene in Istanbul (of a barber shop).

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Below is a video of me “working the scene” of this guy I met in Downtown LA who just got out of prison 2 days prior:

Don’t feel guilty for “bothering someone” — take your time. If you are photographing someone, just smile at them. If they smile back, that is a nonverbal response in which they say “okay, sure you can photograph me, no problem.”

It Will Take Time

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Also know that building your confidence in street photography and overcoming your fears will take time.

Your fear will never 100% go away, but would you ever want to become an emotionless robot without any fear?

Fear is just another human emotion. Like love, hope, friendship, and connection. If we didn’t have any emotions, we wouldn’t be able to identify good street photographs (the best street photographs tend to have emotion in them).

Also without emotion, we wouldn’t be able to make decisions. In some psychological studies when people have their brain-connections severed or damaged (and they lose some sort of emotion or empathy), they become paralyzed and unable to make decisions.

My personal story is that when I started street photography 8 years ago (at the tender age of 18) my heart would palpitate like crazy when I saw someone I wanted to photograph. I would feel the sweat roll down my back and my heart about to break through my chest. My heart rate would increase as well as my breathing. I felt like I was having a small heart-attack when photographing strangers.

Now, I have conditioned myself to (mostly) not feel this. For 99% of people I see, I’m no longer afraid to photograph them (with or without permission). It is just something that comes with time.

It is like if you’re a tennis player. Learning how to serve is one of the most difficult things. At first it is unnatural and you try to force it, and you mostly fail. But the more you practice, it becomes subconscious, and fluid.

Similarly, in street photography I used to be very stiff and awkward when shooting in the streets. But now that I have shot enough in the streets, I feel a lot more confident and walk smoothly through the streets, smiling and interacting with people that I meet.

This means that people in the streets trust me more (as I look more experienced and more self-confident in myself).

I have also found the following: the more nervous you are, the more suspicious others will be of you. Your body language says a lot, and negativity and fear is contagious.

But if you walk straight, confidently, chest high, smile, and interact with people with ease, people will trust you. Watch the TED talk in which just standing up straight and putting your hands on your hips in a “power pose” can increase your testosterone and confidence levels dramatically.

To Sum It All Up

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So to sum things up, here are some practical tips you can apply to build your confidence by harnessing your fear in street photography:

  1. When you’re afraid, admit to your subjects that you are afraid, and they will be compassionate towards you.
  2. If you’re scared, shoot (don’t think too much)
  3. Smile at strangers before photographing them (regardless if it is with or without permission)
  4. If people are okay with you photographing them, work the scene (take 5+ photos of them)
  5. Realize it will take time (the more you shoot street photography, and the longer you shoot, you will build your confidence. It is a gradual process).

About the author: Eric Kim is a street photographer who is currently based in Berkeley, California. You can find a selection of his work on his website. Kim also blogs regularly about street photography and teaches workshops on the subject all around the world. This article originally appeared here.


Image credit: Photographs by Eric Kim and used with permission

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